The rise of Donald Trump has led me to think again about Benjamin Disraeli, one of the great figures of nineteenth-century English conservatism. There are many differences. Disraeli wrote his own books, married just one woman, and was not a newcomer to politics when, at the end of a long career in Parliament, he became Prime Minister, briefly in 1868 and then in full power from 1874-1880. But there are parallels worth pondering.
Disraeli was distrusted by the English establishment. Though he had been baptized in his youth, his physical features marked him as a Jew. In his books and speeches, he expressed idiosyncratic speculations about the distinctive genius and providential role of the Jewish people. He alienated his conservative colleagues and the Anglican establishment when, in 1847, he spoke in favor of modifying the oath of office to allow Lionel de Rothschild to occupy the seat in Parliament to which he had been elected. (Disraeli’s speech was in vain; Rothschild was denied his seat.) He was a dandy who wrote novels, which set him apart from the usual run of conservative MPs of his era—conventional gentlemen clothed in tweed and devoted to hounds, horses, and hunting.
This outsider came of age when English politics was being transformed by the industrial revolution. He had a rhetorical, romantic genius rather than a logical one, and he felt his way forward intuitively. This meant that he switched positions on key issues as circumstances changed. In consequence, Disraeli was often accused of being an opportunist, a politician without convictions, a man after power without regard to principle.
Were Disraeli reincarnated as a Republican politician, our establishment would very likely find him as distressing as they currently find Trump.
The parallels don’t end with the fact that both men were held in suspicion by the establishments of their times. Disraeli ascended to leadership in the Tory Party when it was in disarray. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, one of central political issues concerned the Corn Laws, protectionist tariffs on imported grain that were designed to support the landed interests, the traditional basis of wealth for England’s ruling class; also important were electoral reform and the expansion of the franchise. Disraeli’s Tory Party was on the defensive, and by the middle of the nineteenth-century it looked as though an ascendant liberalism (which in that era meant free trade and democratic reforms) was destined to command a permanent majority.
Disraeli orchestrated a transformation of Toryism. He recognized that the liberals (the progressives of his time) represented a relatively narrow set of interests that orbited around wealthy industrialists and the middle class that flourished in the new industrial economy. As all recognized, these interests were opposed to those of the aristocratic class, which measured wealth in land, not in textile production. But they were also opposed to those of agricultural workers who continued in their traditional roles on the great estates, as well as those of the industrial proletariat. This is why the Liberal Party wanted to expand the franchise—but not too far.
Liberalism then, as now, had a very limited moral imagination. It tended to view human beings as utility-maximizing machines. Here, Disraeli’s romanticism provided an advantage. For it turns out that modern men have existential needs as well as economic ones, and Disraeli intuited the ways in which ordinary Englishmen wanted to be part of a noble national enterprise.
Lately I’ve been dipping into his best-known novel, Sybil, Or the Two Nations (1845). The prose is charming, and as political propaganda the novel is a work of genius. In set pieces that would make Tom Wolfe jealous, Disraeli details the political corruption of the ascendant liberal ruling class. In other passages, his purple pose evokes a more benevolent past, which is juxtaposed with the hellish conditions created by the “Brutilitarians” who run things now. The aristocratic protagonist is converted from unfeeling privilege to a noble desire to raise up the poor and unify England.
Disraeli’s genius was to see the possibility of an alliance between a paternalistic, hereditary aristocracy and a patriotic, stubbornly traditional working class. He convinced Tories to outflank the liberals with an even greater expansion of the vote to working-class Englishmen. He implemented the first elements of the modern regulatory and welfare state designed to protect the interests of workers against factory owners. And he relished the pomp of Empire.
Disraeli was a paradoxical man. He was a wannabe aristocrat with a keen sense of what motivated ordinary people. And he was unbound by the political truisms of his time, improvising his way toward a new conservative coalition, which would become the foundation of modern English conservatism.
All of which makes me think again about Donald Trump. He, too, seems to intuit a growing gap between the interests of our working class and those of our ruling class, most of whom, whether right or left, see neo-liberalism and globalization as destiny. He, too, recognizes that politics has an existential dimension. His blunt nationalism inspires many with the hope that they can be part of something “great again.” And Trump, like Disraeli, has the advantage of running against a tone-deaf “Brutilitarian” establishment. Today’s technocrats can’t fathom the notion that people want to be citizens, not just clients, workers, investors, and consumers.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.